It has taken me 10 years to realise that I am more a wool producer than I am a sheep farmer.
For the typical commercial sheep farmer, the animals they raise annually are the core of their business as they send them off to market when they come to condition or sell them onto other sheep farmers as breeding stock. From the outset, they select ewes who lamb easily, bond strongly with their lambs and are produce lots of milk. They also select breeds for length of carcase and body weight which is what the butchers want.
For these farmers, the wool is of secondary importance and for many, it is an inconvenience rather than an asset. They know, for the health of their flock, they must shear their sheep annually. Very often the cost of shearing and getting the wool to a commercial collection point will be about as much as they will get paid for the wool. In a lot of cases, they produce the wool at a financial loss and I know of many small flock owners who just burn their newly sheared wool.
For a wool producer, this scenario does not apply. Yes, I would ideally like a milky ewe who can just get on with producing and rearing her lambs without my intervention. But that’s not what my Southdowns do – my ewes consider themselves way too posh to push so have to be helped lamb and then I need to keep a close watch on the lambs to ensure they are getting enough milk. The Southdowns are also small relative to other breeds so are of less interest to butchers even though Mrs Beeton writing more than a century ago said “the most delicious sorts of lamb are those of the Southdown breed known for their black feet…” (Beeton I, Mrs Beeton’s Everyday cookery, 1907, pg 257).
No, I am prepared to put up with the sore feet, the complicated lambing, topping up the milk lamb and so on because I am in need of their wool for my bedding business and Southdown wool is by far the finest to go into duvets, pillows and mattress covers. This means that I have the strong incentive to keep my Southdowns beyond their ideal breeding age as I place increasing value on the fleece that they yield annually.
All this got me thinking about our relationships with the animals we have domesticated over the centuries. They are complex, diverse and, of course, irreversible.